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Danish journalist Anna Libak interviewed Stanislav Petrov in Russia in early March 2004, and in this article from the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, she provides an in-depth account of what happened Sept. 25-26, 1983.

Nuclear War:  Minuteman

April 2, 2004

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer on the September night in 1983 when the Soviet spy satellite Kosmos-1382 suddenly reported the firing of five American nuclear missiles toward the Soviet Union. The lieutenant colonel had to make a decision.

By Anna Libak
- One could rightly call Stanislav Petrov an unheralded hero. As it says on the home page of, which has been established in his honor:  “Few people know of him... yet conceivably hundreds of millions of people are alive because of him. Stanislav Petrov, a retired Soviet military officer, is credited with preventing the start of World War III and the nuclear devastation of much of the Earth.”

The president of the international peace organization “Association of World Citizens,” Douglas Mattern, has for months searched in vain for the hero in order to present him with a special award.

And to be honest, my photographer and I also have difficulty realizing that we have found his trail on this freezing cold spring day, standing in front of a row of whitish-gray tenement complexes in the town of Fryazino, 50 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

We received a tip about the address from a Russian journalist at the magazine Kommersant Vlast, which is one of the few Russian media ever to mention Petrov’s achievement. The journalist had warned us in advance that we would have to go to Petrov without making an appointment because his telephone is no longer working. Neither is his doorbell, so we traipse around in the cold, trying to avoid stepping in the dog droppings which are everywhere around the buildings.

Two nearby neighbors are passing by, and we ask them. The first one, an elderly lady, shakes her head and states without hesitation: “Stanislav Petrov? No one by that name lives here.” The other one, a middle aged man, laughs out loud: “You must be insane. If such a man had really existed, one who ignored such a warning of an American nuclear attack, he would have been executed or at least imprisoned. We are talking about the Soviet Union. At that time there was not such a thing as a false alarm. Only faulty judgments. The system was never wrong. Only the people.”

But finally we get lucky. A lady lets herself into Petrov’s entrance and we sneak in with her. And in fact, on the second floor, an unshaven version of Stanislav Petrov’s picture on the Internet pokes his head out the door. “Yes, that’s me,” he confirms. “Come on in.” He hobbles out in the kitchen with his dog at his heels and says that he is glad to have some company. It turns out that it has been weeks since he has been outside. His feet are swollen, and he cannot stand up or walk for very long. However, he does get provisions, he assures us; his son, who also lives in the messy and dirty apartment, takes care of that. Judging from the many empty vodka bottles which vie for space in the room, he does not suffer from thirst either.

Cold Fronts
If Stanislav Petrov today appears to be a pathetic being, a lonely, drunken pensioner and widower, he is nonetheless a man who has done more for mankind than most. Perhaps even more than any other person living today.

For it was he who was on duty at the Serpukhov-15 military installation south of Moscow on the epoch-making night between September 25 and 26, 1983. This was a location so secret that very few Russians knew of its existence. In the middle of a forest, behind a concrete wall with barbed wire at the top and with armed guards at the main entrance, it was a secret command station that received and decoded information from the spy satellites which the Soviet Union had in orbit above the Earth. Officially, it was said to be an observatory, since there had to be some explanation for the large white monstrosity that poked its head up like some gigantic mushroom in the forest. The toadstool hid a gigantic warning radar setup.

When a spy satellite detected the heat radiation from a missile booster rocket, the information was immediately transmitted to a gigantic computer monstrosity, M-10, which, with a capacity of ten million computations per second, calculated the missile type, its orbit and speed, as well as the time and place of impact. Shortly after that, the control center would visually register the missile on its monitors as a bright, funnel-shaped blip, which grew, becoming longer and longer, before it disappeared behind the curvature of the Earth. This Petrov had seen many times.

“I have often observed how the Americans fired missiles and rockets from their nine military bases, especially from the eastern and western ones. They often fired rockets over the Pacific Ocean from Cape Canaveral, where we also kept an eye on their spacecraft launches. Earlier on, when we had fewer satellites, they always made sure to fire the missiles when they knew that our satellites were not in position.”

Petrov had never imagined that he, as a duty officer, would experience receiving a report of a nuclear attack. He did not actually work in the operations department, but was vice-chief in the analysis department for war programming. He was merely subbing for a friend as operations duty officer that evening. He was, however, not inexperienced in this area — he had written the instructions for the technical personnel.

“I had obviously never dreamt that I would ever face that situation,” he says thoughtfully, lighting yet another cigarette with shaking hands. “It was the first and, as far as I know, also the last time that such a thing had happened, except for simulated practice scenarios. In a general way I had wondered if the Americans would actually attack us. We were trained by the military system to believe that the Americans easily might decide to do that. We had no way of judging by ourselves. We learned written English, but not the spoken language, because we were not supposed to be able to speak to anyone from the West. As a military man I never traveled outside the country; I did not even have a passport. The Cold War was ice cold in 1983,” he says thoughtfully, closing his eyes.

It is true that not many compliments were exchanged between the United States and the Soviet Union that year. The paranoid military and political Soviet leadership could easily convince themselves that the Americans were considering “a preventive attack.” Ronald Reagan had announced his Star Wars project that year, and had called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. NATO was planning to place Pershing-II missiles in West Germany. On September 1 the Soviet Union had just downed a South Korean passenger plane, killing hundreds of innocent passengers, and in the Soviet Union, this alone would be considered as motivation for an American attack. Strangely, Soviet agents in the West did not try to tone down the threat from the United States. They felt that Secretary General Yuri Andropov wished to have his worries corroborated.

And in the night between September 25 and 26 something happened that was not supposed to happen. A siren wailed loudly, and on Stanislav Petrov’s control panel, the red button marked “Start” was blinking.

“It was an adrenalin shock,” related Petrov. “I will never forget it. I was on the second floor, behind a thick wall of safety glass, and through it I could look down into the operations room. The back wall of the room was covered by two large green electronic maps of the Soviet Union and U.S., where the nine American military bases could be seen. When the start button in front of me began blinking, I immediately looked at the map, and could see there, that at a military base on the east coast, it was also blinking as a signal that a missile had been fired, aimed at us. In an instant I saw before me how the lid of the missile silo had been pushed aside and the missile’s booster rocket had sent it out into space with a trail of fire behind it. And I thought about that silo never being able to be used again, having been destroyed by fire. The silos were not built to be used more than once, since there would be no one left to place another missile in it again. And I thought, ‘In forty minutes it will be here.’ And then I thought, ‘But if they send only one, then it is not a nuclear war.’”

At that moment the start button again blinked, and then once more, and then again. In all, the firing of five intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles was recorded. Petrov knew that not only he, but also the head of the next level of the hierarchy, the duty officer in the SPRN command station, “the system for warning of a nuclear attack,” had automatically received the report. He was located north of Moscow, about 100 kilometers from Petrov; he too had to be distressed. Petrov grabbed the telephone with the direct encrypted line to his closest superior at SPRN and immediately heard his voice. “This is insane,” Petrov stuttered, quite unauthorized, before the voice on the other end ordered, “I can see it; take it easy; do your job.”

There was no time to waste, and Stanislav Petrov knew it. He and his crew of about 100 men had 8 to 10 minutes to decide if it was a false alarm or not. At this point in 1983 the warning systems were so new that the Secretary General of the Soviet Union was not yet in possession of the legendary little red suitcase with the firing codes for the thousands of nuclear missiles. This did not mean that the Secretary General could not order the launching of a retaliatory attack within just a few minutes. He, together with the supreme military and political leadership, would naturally be informed about the nuclear attack when the missiles got closer to the Soviet Union and were recorded by other warning and high resolution radar, but that had not yet happened that evening. The system was so “raw” that it was pretty much left to prominent engineers such as Petrov to evaluate how the technical data regarding an attack were to be interpreted.

At the moment, it appeared completely impossible that the system might be sending a false alarm, since it had never happened before in a serious situation. However, just before midnight that evening Petrov had noticed that on the monitor screen the U.S. had been divided in the middle by the terminator line marking the line between day and night just when the satellite Kosmos-1382 satellite entered the field of observation. The abrupt transition into darkness might have created difficulties in the calculations made by the satellite. But what had Petrov seriously doubting the computer’s calculations was the fact that on the command station monitors they could not see the slight trail of a jet — the “funnel-shaped tail of fire” — which visually confirmed the arrival of a missile. In other words, the satellite had registered five missile firings, the computer had calculated that they were Minuteman missiles, but the radar did not send the visual confirmation.

“I gave the Americans the benefit of the doubt,” says Petrov. “By that time the Americans had not yet developed a national missile defense system — they still haven’t — so they knew that a nuclear attack on us was tantamount to the eradication of at least half of their population. I was convinced that the Americans were a militant nation, but not a suicidal one. I remember thinking, ‘That big an idiot has not been born yet, not even in the U.S.’ And then I grabbed the telephone and reported a false alarm to the SPRN command station.”

The Sun’s Rays
For several years after that, Soviet scientists strove to clarify the cause for the false alarm and several thick reports were published.

“This is hard to understand for people who are not engineers or astrophysicists,” says Petrov. “But many different factors need to exist before it happens. The satellite can give false reports if it is at a certain location relative to the Earth under specific atmospheric conditions. It can mean that the American territory functions as a mirror, reflecting the sun’s beams. This is extremely difficult to calculate, since the satellite is at least 36,000 kilometers distant from the observation post, and it is moving, and so is the Earth, which is not round but slightly pear-shaped. This also has to be taken into consideration….”

Petrov assures us that it is extremely rare for all the factors to be present at the same time, but on the other hand, he adds, our knowledge of the universe is limited and will be as long as astronauts fly closer to the Earth than the satellites.

“I have heard from our military intelligence service, GRU, that the Americans also have had false alarms,” he says. “This had happened before 1983, and they reacted by sending strategic bombers loaded with nuclear missiles clear to the North Pole to direct counterattacks against us. In another instance they confused flocks of migratory birds with missiles and placed their nuclear missiles on highest alert. But luckily, the button was not pushed.”

Petrov does not have a clear answer to the question of whether the danger is past today. He says that since Americans and the Russians are no longer enemies, one would expect that there would be no missile attack from either side. At the same time, he adds, on both sides there are still thousands of nuclear missiles, which today are still located where they always have been, and now, as earlier, it is the codes alone that decide where they are going.

As far as Petrov knows, there has never since in the Soviet Union or in Russia been a situation which can be compared with the one he experienced that fateful night. But it is possible that he has no knowledge of it simply because he left the service one year after the false alarm, in the fall of 1984. His wife was ill with a brain tumor and required more care than his demanding job as a lieutenant colonel in the missile attack warning system permitted.

He never received any thanks for his contribution on that night. On the contrary, the investigatory committee which was formed immediately after, on the order of Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, reprimanded him for not having made entries in the log according to regulations.

“Naturally, it disappointed me a little that they got caught up in details like that, but the commission was looking for scapegoats at that time. That is probably also the reason that I didn’t get a commendation. The morning after the alarm the lieutenant colonel, the commander-in-chief of anti-missile defenses, came. He told me that he was going to recommend to our commander-in-chief, the head of the air defense system, which we were under, that I be awarded a medal. But it didn’t happen.”

After leaving the service at the Serpukhov-15 facility, Petrov worked for a couple of years in the “Kometa” civilian development department, which had developed the warning system. Then he retired and the state gave him an apartment in the town of Fryazino, outside Moscow. His wife has been dead for many years and today he lives on a pension of 5,000 rubles — 1500 [Danish] kroner [less than $200 U.S. dollars a month, which is considered a good pension in Russia, though not enough to live a decent life].

He recently received a letter from one of the creators of the Internet site honoring him. They asked if he would like to assist with the home page. “I am sorry to say that I don’t speak English, and I don’t have Internet,” says Petrov, smoothing the letter affectionately. “But I have thought about learning it. It is nice of them to consider me a hero. I don’t know that I am. Since I am the only one in this country who has found himself in this situation, it is difficult to know if others would have acted differently.”

Hopefully the world will never find out.


Nuclear War:  Minuteman
By Anna Libak
Weekendavisen — April 2, 2004
Reprinted with permission.


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